REVIEW: Tarragon’s Rock’n’Roll Hamlet Sings Truth To Power
Tijana Spasich reviews Tarragon Theatre’s Hamlet, a topical tragedy told through the lens of rock and roll.
While Tarragon describes their current production of Hamlet as one “told through the powerful lens of rock and roll”, director Richard Rose’s comment in an interview with Whole Note – that the production is “not really a rock and roll musical. It’s part concert, part radio play, part performance” – resonates more with me.
I’d have to agree with Rose’s description: yes it’s loud, and the music – like the play itself – is often ominous and moody, but think more classic rock ballads, less screaming. I find that modern interpretation of Shakespeare can, despite their efforts, seem distant from our current reality; in this production, however, the themes of the play emerge as true to our moment. It’s no secret that Toronto’s theatre scene is experiencing a time of internal turmoil and self reflection – as is the North American performing arts world more broadly; in the wake of recent allegations, questions of how to dismantle power structures and powerful people, and what it takes to do so, are relevant to our current moment.
As the audience enters Tarragon’s Main Space, the stage is already smokey, the mood set. It’s a bare set up, much like you’d expect at a concert. Six silver chairs, six standing microphones, all arranged in a line. Musical instruments sit behind the veil of smoke waiting for their band – who, we find out, are also the actors and composers. Jason Hand’s lighting design is opulent, contrasting the sparse set. It’s definitely rock and roll, and speaks to the moods and emotional places Hamlet visits. I love what it does for the show.
The music is a character in its own right, with the performers both accompanying and responding to the unfolding action. The different instruments characters use give us insight into what kind of people they are, and how they are feeling.
Ophelia sings, her songs becoming less sweet and more distorted as the play progresses. Laertes leaves Denmark a bard, his trusty acoustic guitar slung over his back, and returns an angry soldier, playing a solo on electric guitar. This interaction between music and story could have been pushed even further, given the central role music plays and how much space the music takes up physically (there are a lot of instruments onstage). Nevertheless there are several strong moments, most memorably when a grieving, distempered Hamlet (Noah Reid) is introduced, playing a sullen tune on the piano much to the chagrin of King Claudius (Nigel Shawn Williams) and Queen Gertrude (Tantoo Cardinal).
Because of the relatively limited playing space – sandwiched between mics in front and instruments in the back – the stage at times seems cramped, and the linear set-up of the mics that the actors speak and sing into somewhat awkward. It makes the actors appear rigid at first, but this eventually eases off, becoming part of the flow. The mics offer compelling insight and metaphor – they seem to represent the characters’ public faces (in private or intimate moments the characters don’t speak into them) except, tellingly, Hamlet who – always pretending – carries a wireless mic around with him constantly.
Reid as Hamlet is wonderfully inventive with his mic, playing with concealing and revealing it. It’s a strong cast overall, with the comic characters playing best of all. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Gravedigger (Rachel Cairns, Jesse Lavercombe, and Cliff Saunders respectively) help lift the tension marvelously while also – in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – transitioning smoothly from friends, to Claudius’ spies, to Hamlet’s unwitting keepers.
While the show doesn’t completely reinvent Hamlet – choosing to stay close to standard narrative interpretations despite its radical exterior – its use of music adds another thematic layer and distinct liveliness to the telling of a well known tale, inviting its audience to examine how power, duty, and responsibility can corrupt, and the incredible struggle – internal and external – faced by those who attempt to expose corruption. A topical ballad.
Tijana Spasic is a theatre creator, producer, and installation artist. She has created performance projects, installations, community driven, and educational work. She enjoys creating through collaborative practices, and is passionate about peer to peer mentorship and education. She has a background in devised theatre practices, Lecoq & movement based creation techniques, and Boal’s Forum theatre. Some of her projects include: The Warm-Up To Me Project (Nuit Blanche), Favours For Strangers, Firebird (LabCab Festival), Memorandum (AfterRock), Mood Swings (Luminato-New Waves), The Bus House (Nuit Blanche), Wesoo Hamlet (bcurrent), Uth Connexion (reConnexion Collective), and The Hurt is Astounding (Toronto Fringe). She collaborates with Mammalian Diving Reflex, and has worked on Dare Night (Gladstone Hotel), Teen Tours (Powerplant Gallery), All The Sex I’ve Ever Had-International Edition (Luminato Festival), and Promises to a Divided City (Theatre Centre). Most recently she lead Happy Eatium, Mammalian’s 2017 multi-neighbourhood Young Mammals project that explored food sustainability across 4 Toronto neighbourhoods. She’s an immigrant, and speaks Russian and Serbian.